Prokofiev: Etude and Piano Concerto

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)

Mention the name of Prokofiev to any musician, and instantly a mental curtain goes up: They hear music of caprice, vigor, and daring; original almost to the point of eccentricity; Russian in the fullest sense of the word.

"I abhor imitation," Prokofiev once wrote, "and I abhor the familiar." Certainly, Prokofiev is a difficult man to pin down; some categorize his music as neo-classical, others as sui generis. By pushing the limits of public taste, he invited both admiration and scathing criticism; however, nearly sixty years after his death, his seat among the pantheon of musical gods remains secure.

The following two selections provide a glimpse into Prokofiev's world. Doubtless, they represent only an incomplete part of him. Both his etudes, op. 2, and his piano concerto no. 1, op. 10, were composed at the beginning of his career; they are worlds removed from the dark, sarcastic, acidic hatred of his final piano sonatas or his colossal, finger-breaking Sinfonia Concertante. (Truly, both Shostakovich and Prokofiev, their souls hardened and warped within the crucible of Stalinist Russia, are two of the greatest gifts to be produced by that unhappy era.)

However, these pieces are a good point of entry into Prokofiev's beautiful imagination. The etudes and piano concerto are energetic, bombastic, unabashedly virtuosic pieces Prokofiev used as vehicles to coruscate onto the musical scene as a singular composer-pianist. And while Prokofiev used the piano to incredible effect, mind that it represents only a fraction of his music output - an oeurve which comprised operas, symphonies, ballets, and a superb cello sonata. The inquisitive listener will be drawn to seek out these gems.

For now, enjoy the dark sonorities and virtuosic daring of his etude in D minor, a picture of the brashness and audacity of a young man beginning to realize his powers; enjoy the roller-coaster ride of the piano concerto finale, a movement traversing an astonishing range of gorgeous, transcendental, sometimes bizarre emotions, climaxing with endless cascades of octaves over the glorious swells of the orchestra.